The big difference between Chelsea's 3-2 defeat to Stoke last season and 2-0 win on Monday was Nemanja Matic's dominant display in midfield, writes Matt Stanger...
It's that time of year, when we look back with fondness and wonder. So, here for your delectation are Football365's top ten players of the year. Please don't get angry, okay?
Although modern football is a much-changed sport, it is very rare that something of note actually dies out. Instead, the game operates in something of a cyclical pattern, and formations and tactics fall in and out of favour as trends are recreated and snubbed. Such things can happen quickly, and last October Arsene Wenger commented on the progression of formations since his arrival in 1996, remarking on the new versatility of 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3.
But there is one thing you just don't really see anymore, and certainly not within the Premier League. Since the turn of the century, they have vanished almost without trace. The player-manager, it appears, may be becoming extinct.
The concept of the player-manager is actually very logical. As players, particularly long servants, reached the end of their careers, football chairmen felt that the natural progression for these players was to take control of team affairs. After all, such individuals retained respect amongst teammates and had a working knowledge of the squad better than any other.
The 1980s was the veritable heyday for the role, with two particularly high-profile examples. At Rangers, Graeme Souness was actually signed from Sampdoria straight into the player-manager post, where he played 62 games in his first two seasons, winning a domestic double in his first and the League Cup in the second. As his playing time reduced over the second two seasons (12 appearances), Rangers won consecutive titles. Souness remained more successful as a player-manager than he ever was in a solely managerial position.
Kenny Dalglish was the other shining beacon for the role. Kenny played over 50 games for Liverpool between 1985 and 1987, and during his first season in the dual position, won the club's first ever League and FA Cup double, a remarkable achievement considering he also played 30 matches. He continued playing, albeit more sparingly, until 1990, winning three titles, two FA Cups and four Charity Shields in five seasons.
As football entered the nineties and the Premier League era, the role was immediately in vogue. Whilst there was not the quality of Dalglish or Souness' honours, this was made up for by quantity. Glenn Hoddle (Swindon), Alan Curbishley (Charlton), Gordon Strachan (Coventry), Peter Reid (Manchester City), Trevor Francis (Sheffield Wednesday) and Stuart Pearce (Forest) are just a few examples, but Chelsea caught the bug more than any other club. Between June 1993 and September 2000 Chelsea operated solely with player managers (Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli the incumbents), with Vialli especially flourishing, winning five trophies in his two-and-a-half years in charge.
And then it suddenly stopped. Stuart McCall was in charge for two games at Bradford City during November 2000, but since then only Gareth Southgate has been appointed on such an understanding, and he never made an appearance for Middlesbrough whilst also managing. What had been a regular occurrence (13 over the PL's first nine years) simply died out.
The picture is the same across English football. There are now only two player-managers in the Football League that have made appearances this season, and both are in the lower half of League Two. Edgar Davids is plying his trade at Barnet (40 next month) and Gareth Ainsworth is at Wycombe (the same age in May). These are the only remnants of a dying breed. But why?
Part of the reason for the decline is the increase in transfers. In the case of Dalglish and Pearce most notably (but also the case with a large percentage of other examples), these were club heroes who had remained for years and were merely taking that 'natural step' previously mentioned. Now, with far fewer players remaining at clubs for significant portions of their careers, there is less benefit to the promotion of players to the dual role. Nottingham Forest promoted Pearce because he was 35 and had played over 500 games in 12 years at the City Ground. Now, Forest don't have a single player over 25 who has been at the club for more than four years.
However, player-managers have essentially been wiped out by practicality and bureaucracy. For a manager to take control of a top-level club on a permanent basis (12 weeks is considered to be an unqualified caretaker's limit) he or she requires a UEFA Pro Licence, a qualification that follows the UEFA B and A licences, agreed by the Premier League in 2003. After a grace period for certain bosses (Avram Grant at Chelsea and Paul Ince at Blackburn included), this is now a rule that is strictly adhered to.
The UEFA Pro Licence involves a year-long course comprising of 240 study hours including topics ranging from injury prevention to transfer protocols and dealing with agents, with regular written exams. This supplements the A licence, which also takes a year and focuses more on the on-field tactical aspects of the game.
It is fairly inconceivable that a player would manage to combine his final days playing with (at least) three years needed to gain all of the licences required. The dedication and motivation required of - and money earned by - a Premier League footballer dictates that the logical step now is to retire before carrying out the courses and stepping into management. Few will be scratching around financially during this period and punditry can provide an alternative.
The evident example of this is Gary Neville. His TV appearances show a detailed understanding of the game that one suspects is far greater than that enjoyed by many working managers today (for once I'm not naming names), and would have been more than capable of taking the helm at a Premier League side as player-manager. Two years after retirement, he now has the B and A licences and has assisted with England's coaching staff. So he can coach a national side but is still not eligible for a Premier League job?
It all just seems a bloody shame. I understand why the ruling is in place (it stops the potential lunacy of an owner employing an unqualified friend in the role), but we will never again see the likes of Glenn Hoddle scoring the opener in the play-off final to get Swindon to the Premier League, Ruud Gullit gliding round the pitch as an automatic pick or Stuart Pearce winning Manager of the Month in January 1997 whilst also playing every minute of every game. More importantly, potentially adept coaches may lose the impetus to move into management. Would Dalglish have become a manager without that player-manager opportunity at Anfield?
Either way, it appears that the loss of the player-manager is not one of football's trends or passing fads, instead lost to bureaucracy, destined to become a sepia-tinted entity of the past.
Remind Daniel Storey of other player-managers on Twitter